Considering the Message of Jesus

Jesus Christ, detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.

Jesus Christ, detail from Deesis mosaic, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey.

Christian writers, intellectuals, theologians, and others are right about this one thing: the world remains fascinated by the story of Jesus of Nazareth more than 2,000 years after his death. Thousands of writers, tons of ink, and mountains of paper have been expended trying to understand this unique Rabbi from Galilee who taught a belief system of tolerance and love in a world that was brutal and desperate.

For example, Bruce Barton in The Man Nobody Knows (1925) interpreted Jesus as the builder of the greatest sales force ever, inspiring his disciples to change the world through his message of love. Andrew Lloyd Webber fashioned him as a “Superstar.” Nikos Kazantzakis in The Last Temptation (1960) viewed him as essentially a man who slowly came to an understanding of his own divinity. Others have interpreted him as the fully realized Son of God who offered a blood sacrifice for the sake of humanity.

At sum, the life of Jesus as reported in the canonized Gospels, not to mention those uncanonized, has been a mirror upon which we might interpret His message dependent upon time and place, perspective and priority. Every generation since his departure has asked, “Who was He? What does His life mean?” For every generation, the permutations have the answer have been complex.

I am most disappointed, and not a little frustrated, when the complexity of the message of Jesus is lost in a thinly veiled, simplistic, and arrogantly argued millennialistic perspective on the world. I seem to be seeing this more and more often. So often these perspectives ignore more than a century of sophisticated higher criticism, remarkable scholarship on the meaning and message of Jesus and his life, and only channel simplistic apocalyptic ideas. When hurricanes and tornadoes, tsunamis and earthquakes are equated with an unleashing of God’s wrath on humanity and a sign of the “end times” I roll my eyes. Usually I bite my tongue but not always.

Clearly, such judgments have little to do with Jesus Christ and his message. Perhaps a way to think about Jesus is to ask which you value more: the life and teaching of Jesus or the death and resurrection of Christ? There is a lot of richness in considering that dichotomy, and there is ample room for righteous people to emphasize either perspective.

I wish I saw more of that richness in any discussion of the events of the world.

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2 Responses to Considering the Message of Jesus

  1. mike shupp says:

    Hmmm, I does appear to me that there has been a “dumbing down” of Christian teachings in the past century or so (and perhaps in Islam and Hinduism, as well). It’s not clear if this is a real phenomenon — unsophisticated “fundamentalsts” rising in numbers — or an artifact of the decay of theological display by more sophisticated believers — elites giving up their lecturns and radio pulpits to fundamentalists. Or perhaps we’ve entered a new phase in Christianity’s multi-millenial history, with the religion rising to increased prominence in Africa and the Amereicas, even as it diminishes in Europe. Or — one can speculate endlessly.

    I draw attention, however, to the notion that contemporary elites simply aren’t schooled in Christian history and the evolution of Christian beliefs as past generations were. The history of Christianity used to be a standard required course in English “public” schools and elsewhere. It’s excluded from secular American schools and universities, with the upshot that most “educated” American’s retain little more scraps of the New Testament, and some recollection of the names Augustine and Aquinas and perhaps a few saints. True, Robin Lane Fox and Ramsey MacMullen have published interesting popular accounts of early Christian history in response, but even their books appeared 30 years ago — a generation, and I’m not aware of comparable recent works, This is not a bulwark against a rising sea of gullability and superstition.

    I’m a solid agnostic, so I suppose I shouldn’t care. But in fact this strikes me as tragic — an enormous swath of the fabric of human history is being forgotten, as if it never were. This distorts our understanding of where we are in current times, and is not fair to the memory of the millions now deceased whose lives built our modern world.


    • launiusr says:

      Mike, thanks for these really thoughtful comments. I agree that the level of discourse is not very high among the population as a whole. I went to a church sponsored liberal arts college and while specific religion classes were not required they were encouraged. Most people took at least one of them. Perhaps that was a good way to go.


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